[This review was originally posted as part of our 2013 Sundance Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical release.]
Some time between being handed a Chinatown bootleg of Oldboy in 2005 and it shooting up IMDB's user charts over the years, I wondered if I was too forgiving of director Chan-wook Park. The hilariously overwrought child performances, the awful music that plays during action scenes, and the reliance on a twist ending to make sense of everything.
Park has become more sophisticated since Oldboy's release (now slated for a US remake by Spike Lee), but even with his English debut Stoker, some of his divisive sensibilities can't be shaken so easily. Adding on the burden of language barriers and a script that takes an hour to get anywhere doesn't do Park's shortcomings any favors.
I feel fairly confident in identifying Park's Korean sensibilities, but only because a Korean friend once identified them for me. He studied and adopted Park's flourishes and fetishes for his own student films: swinging lights, extreme close-ups of eating, lots of bare feet, and a series of plot twists that'd make M. Night's head spin. If these things are what you too look for in Park's films, Stoker will not disappoint. In brief: He's still Korean.
Forgive me if I put Stoker's visuals before its story in this review, but it only seems fair for a film that does the very same. Park has a specific vision that benefits greatly from the lavish budget afforded to American films featuring Nicole Kidman. Dutch angles make hillsides otherworldly, domestic violence contains a cartoonish flair that dares me to be excited instead of disgusted, and the editing is full of overlays and freeze frames that belong to another era or maybe just the current era of Korean filmmakers. Stoker is Park's most accomplished film yet, visually-speaking.
After India's (Mia Wasikowska) father suffers a fiery death, her father's mysterious, world-traveling brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves into her mom's (Nicole Kidman) luxurious estate. For the following hour, India interacts with exaggerated high school bullies, her sweet old granny, and the increasingly awkward relationship developing between Uncle Charlie and mom. Charlie sneaks around the house, follows India to school, and has too kind of a demeanor to be anything other than calculated.
The rumors of an exhaustive number of takes on set due to a language barrier between Park and cast is easy to believe with the end result. I don't doubt Park spent a great deal of effort directing his actors, as it takes a great deal of effort for Wasikowska and Kidman to give anything less than a spectacular performance. Everyone in this film appears alien and stilted, which works wonders for the oddball characters (Charlie and India's eccentric grandmother). When truths are finally revealed, it's hard to care. The final act is a roller coaster of twists and gruesome happenings, but it's too little too late. After a painfully dull first hour, I just couldn't invest in the characters beyond their morbid nature.
There is a precise moment in the film when somebody does something in a shower and I think to myself, "There's the Chan-wook Park I know!" Unfortunately, he's operating within a script that bounces between outlandish caricatures and grim revelations. This leads to unintentional chuckles and dramatic moments that land about as well as a one-legged gymnast on an oil slick surface. Outside a couple exceptions, only the violence and sexual tension remains unspoiled: the things that Park has and always will succeed at, regardless of language.